Missoula is a wilderness town. Travel south down Highway 93 and the sprawling Bitterroot-Selway Wilder-ness stretches to the west. Head north and the Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, Great Bear, Cabinet Mountains and Mission Mountains wilderness areas offer a lifetime of solitude and escape. The Anaconda-Pintler and Welcome Creek wilderness areas can be found southeast of town. You can literally take a bus from the Hip Strip to within a few miles of the Rattlesnake Wilderness. If you like exploring big open spaces on foot or horseback, Missoula is your town.
Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, which made 2014 the golden anniversary of the landmark conservation law. I wanted to find a way to celebrate and an excuse to explore, so on a blustery late November day in 2013, while exploring the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness Area north of Ennis, I set a goal to get into a wilderness area once a month for the entirety of 2014.
I experienced some incredible places: six days hiking and packrafting through the Bob Marshall, Labor Day weekend in Idaho's stunning Sawtooth Mountains, an April visit to a barrier island off the southern coast of Georgia. I walked through miles of beargrass and meadows of rainbow wildflowers, climbed past alpine lakes shimmering beneath craggy mountain peaks and watched wild horses and armadillos wander beneath canopies of ancient live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.
But of all these, the quiet moments beneath the chalky winter sky in Missoula's backyard wildernesses proved the most memorable. In the thrum of a busy life, I couldn't simply blast off for a full weekend of exploration or take a life-list vacation each month. So I took full advantage of Missoula's geography. These winter adventures started an hour or so from town. Backcountry skis and skins were the only technical pieces of gear I used. Basic winter travel skills, a smidge of creativity and a commitment to try are all the other tools you'd need to explore Missoula's nearby wilderness areas for yourself this winter.
January: A day at the lake
Gray clouds covered the sky in a thick smear of moisture. A three-week-long high-pressure system had finally moved on. Low clouds lazily spit snowflakes as I stopped to catch my breath in the silent expanse.
Nothing moved except my dog trotting ahead on the frozen surface of Lindbergh Lake. The snow-covered ice stretched 5 miles into the distance, flat and static. Hoar-laden cottonwoods, ponderosas and larch rose from the banks, ghostly against the dark flanks of the Mission Mountains rising into the sky. I pulled at the zipper on my jacket and resumed gliding across the lake.
Cross-country skiing across a frozen lake is remarkably easy. There are no flatter places to schuss in the entire state; heck, there're no flatter places to ski in the entire world. But when you leave that frozen ease and head into the woods, skinny skis become liabilities.
The Mission Mountains Wilderness begins at the southern edge of Lindbergh Lake. My goal was Crystal Lake, another couple of miles up through the trees. Icy, hard-packed snow and dense forest made "skiing" impossible, but I herringboned, poled and clawed my way a mile and a half through the thick forest toward Crystal Lake. After an hour or so of regretting that I didn't pack snowshoes, I paused for some lunch and decided to turn back around.
For the return, I slipped out of the woods and gingerly shuffled, jumped and scooted along and on top of the Swan River. The Swan is most famous for its whitewater, but here it was a shallow, meandering stream. All the same, I had no desire to get wet, so I moved cautiously, scooching from pillow to pillow, hoping that none would collapse under my weight and send me into the frigid water. It was exhilarating and a touch frightening. A wet foot wasn't the end of the world, but I still had miles to ski before hitting the car.
The small knot of anxiety disappeared as I glided back onto the lake. Pausing one last time, I absorbed the stillness. Most of Montana's lakes are crazy busy in the summer as wake boarders and jet skiers zip past fishermen and families on pontoon boats. Country music and classic rock blast from shore to shore. Six months from that late January Sunday, Lindbergh would be no different. But for the moment, it was precisely the opposite—silent, empty and mine alone to enjoy.
February: A thousand vertical feet of powder
We rolled into the familiar parking lot at the base of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area at 7 a.m. The early dawn light provided enough visibility for Ted, Adam and me to pack our gear and click into our skis. We skinned up the main corridor as the shadows lifted. Four miles later, we turned off the trail up the Pilcher Creek drainage, headed for the southeastern ridge of the Stuart Peak massif and the burnt forest that beckoned with a thousand vertical feet of powder.
In 20 minutes, we found ourselves in a narrow drainage, stuck in place. Skis off, we clamored up the small cliff to our right, anxious to gain the slope above and continue climbing. Forty minutes later, we kicked back into our skis and started climbing in earnest. It was going to be a long day.
As we climbed, the weather deteriorated. Patchy sun gave way to blustery clouds and the thick gray sky that dominates western Montana's winter days. Minutes turned to hours. We kept climbing as the snow flurries began. Finally, seven hours after we started, we reached the ridge. The wilderness boundary lay just a half-mile farther up the winding ridge; Stuart Peak loomed farther still. We paused behind a rock to grab a bite in the whipping wind.
Despite our proximity to the boundary separating the "wilderness" from the "forest," I knew my plan was foiled. We were tired and running out of time. Paper boundaries mean nothing to the physical realities of the land. My personal challenge of actually reaching the wilderness meant little to Ted and Adam, so we pulled the skins off our skis and dropped into the burnt forest that fell from the ridge. Disappointment turned immediately to the simple joys of powder turns.
It was raining when we hit the main trail two hours later. We still had a 4-mile slog back to the car. More importantly, even after eight hours of movement, I'd come up a half-mile short. Failure. I'd either have to find another opportunity to check February off my list or my little project would be over in the second month.
But I smiled and whooped with Ted and Adam anyway. I felt content and proud. As we shuffled our heavy backcountry gear down the trail, drawing curious looks from the few cross-country skiers braving the wet, soggy weather, the old aphorism about the journey being more important than the destination echoed through my mind. Never had I found it more true.
March: Casting through graupel
Melting snow cleaved the brown gravel road. The ruts looked too tall for my Subaru Impreza, so I parked and started jogging with my dog up Rock Creek Road toward the suspension bridge crossing Rock Creek and leading into the Welcome Creek Wilderness. Two miles later, we scurried across the bridge and into wilderness. The trail wound through the dense forest, past Douglas fir trees and snowberry bushes, their plump white berries still clinging. Bright bursts of orange lichen popped on the cold gray rocks that flanked the trail. The jangle of the dog's collar and my footsteps broke the stillness.
Soon, the patchy snow lining the trail coalesced into progress-preventing depths. Cold chunks of rotten snow slipped past my cuffs tand into my boots. The hushed forest seemed eerie, too quiet. I started looking up the scree fields for the dusky brown outline of a mountain lion, aware that my fears were completely unfounded, but seduced by them regardless. I post-holed another half hour through the deepening late-spring snowpack.
I had bought my fishing license and some streamers prior to heading out of town, so having successfully ticked off my March goal, I headed back to the car and the cold clear waters of Rock Creek. I spent a couple of hours working Rock Creek in a futile effort to catch trout. The sky spat graupel and the wind frustrated my already limited casting ability. I'd never fished in March before, and despite the wind, the precipitation and the lack of fish, I found myself grinning as I peeled out of my waders and slid into the car.
In truth, my winter wilderness attempts weren't that impressive. The cadre of hardcore adventurers who live in Missoula could have easily accomplished much cooler objectives. I barely even made it into two of the wilderness areas I had set out to explore and failed to reach the third. But that wasn't really the point. My objectives were more fluid and open than simply crossing boundaries or summiting peaks. I've backcountry skied in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness plenty of times before, but I'd never been to Lindbergh Lake, never backcountry-skied in the Rattlesnake, never fished for trout in March snowstorm. My wilderness project gave me a reason to explore somewhere new, to try something different. But more importantly, it gave me an excuse to get out every month, and sometimes an excuse is all we really need.
A few years back, I got on the Grizzly chair at Snowbowl for one more run. It was toward the end of the day, the weather seemed to be escalating and the mountain was shrouded in fog. It was hard to tell if it was snowing or if the frozen particulate churning in the air was the makings of a cloud. About two-thirds of the way into the ride, where the chair leaves the protected corridor of trees and begins its final ascent over the bald face of the Grizzly run, the lift suddenly stopped and left me bobbing and swinging 40 feet above the snowscape.
If you've spent any time on chairlifts, a halt in progress is no big deal. This is true especially at Snowbowl, where the lifts are infamously quirky and the attitude among staff and regulars seems to be if you don't like it, go somewhere else. But on this day, with deteriorating conditions, the impending end of the day and no signs of life in the dissipating light, I got to thinking. And when I get to thinking, worrying is usually quick to follow. How many decades older is this lift than the people operating it? What's the protocol for getting me down from here? How often do they practice such extractions? Should I take my skis off before I jump?
In the light of day, these are unreasonable thoughts, but Snowbowl has a way of making you feel like a crazy person. The mountain has its own rules and the people who recreate and work there have stringent (but poorly disseminated) expectations of their fellow skiers and riders. I once witnessed a mob of people waiting to get on the LaVelle chair heckle an elderly woman who had unwittingly cut the line. And in 2012, a longtime pass holder claimed he had been banned from buying a new season ticket after complaining about unsafe conditions near the base of the mountain. But despite the anxiety-inducing chairlifts and the pressures of adhering to a strict but unknowable sense of decorum, there's nothing I would change about Missoula's local ski area. In its own way, Snowbowl is perfect.
I'm not sure if Missoula is a big town or a small city, but it's hard to imagine a place inhabited by so many people so unanimously committed to recreation and leisure. I couldn't find any hard numbers, but I wager Missoula sits at the top of per capita sales for inner tubes, fly rods and beer. You'd think a town so enamored with fun and the outdoors would also ubiquitously love their local ski hill, but Snowbowl seems to illicit strong and polarized feelings from western Montana residents. I have friends who, like me, love it and would gladly spend the whole season driving the (often perilous) road to the Bowl. I have other friends who happily drive two hours to ski or ride elsewhere and vow never to return to the mountain out their backdoor. But whether you love it or hate it, there's no denying that Snowbowl is tough to break.
It starts with the mountain itself. From the top of the LaVelle chair to the base of the Grizzly chair, the mountain offers a thigh-burning 2,800 vertical feet of open bowls, glades and groomers. Some days the moguls on Spartan Headwall line up so perfectly they make me think I really know how to ski bumps, and when the wind blows just right across West Ridge, pillows of soft snow fill in old tracks and make for the sort of snow-in-your-mouth tree skiing only seen in movies. But for the uninitiated, an inaugural descent might leave one scratching their head.
The problem stems from Snowbowl's varied and inconsistent fall lines. The fall line of a ski hill is the slope created by the gradient (up and down) and the contours (side to side) of the hill. In other words, if you were to pour a giant bucket of water on the mountain's head, the water would follow the fall line to the bottom. At Snowbowl, this exercise would show water collecting rapidly in a dozen gulches and ravines before coming together again in a tidal wave just before the base area. The result is that skiers, like the water, are funneled into the same lines to get down the hill, and when there hasn't been much new snow or if it's a busy day, those lines become packed and icya bit like a bobsled course. The lines can be a little butt-puckering, so it's best to resist following the fall line, which is a little like arguing with gravity about which way is down; you want your skis to go in one direction, but your body is pushed in another.
For experienced skiers, Snowbowl's funky fall lines can be a surprising blessing. All those opposing and intersecting slopes demand some creative and satisfying decision-making. But throw in dense stands of evergreens, a few exposed boulders and the fact that Snowbowl is in Missoula, where it doesn't snow all that much, and just getting down the mountain can seem like a test of will. And although there are ways for the timid to get to the bottom, there aren't many. According to Snowbowl's Master Development Plan, more than 40 percent of the terrain is for experts only, while only 2 percent is rated for novices and beginners. In other words, the Bowl is great for the whole family, but it's best if the whole family knows how to ski.
Of the people I know who refuse to buy a lift ticket at Snowbowl, though, the tricky terrain is usually not their chief complaint. Closer to the heart of the matter is that Snowbowl has a microculture that can sometimes feel unwelcoming. I experienced this when I first started skiing there 10 years ago. Growing up, skiing was something I got to do one or maybe two weekends a year in Vermont. When I moved to Montana, my gear was outdated, and not in a cool way. My skis were short, my helmet was too small and I didn't know that snow could fall "upside down" or that on a crowded day you should never, ever get on a chairlift by yourself. On one of my first visits I rode the chairlift with a woman who began asking me about my skis. "How wide are they underfoot? How much camber? Are those only 165s?" I had no answers. My mom had bought them for me and I'd only used them a handful of times, which didn't seem like an acceptable response. "They're my old skis," I said, pathetically.
That interaction made me feel surprisingly insecure. I'd never thought about equipment in a meaningful way, but suddenly I felt like I should know this stuff. A couple years later I started dating a girl who was, without a doubt, a badass skier. She'd grown up skiing Snowbowl. She shouted at friends as they skied under the lift. She high-fived the lifties. She called everyone "Buddy." We skied together once, and as dates go it was about as awkward as it gets. My tiny helmet, my plaything skis, my utter anonymity—you could hear her attraction to me hissing through a pinprick in her head. We broke up soon after.
That is an extreme example coming from a person who is insecure about everything, but it's indicative of what, I think, can turn some people off from Snowbowl. It's the sort of place that makes you feel "other" very quickly, and then makes you wish you were the same.
I understand why some people don't like Snowbowl and I'm glad for it. Not because I now have new skis and I know my way around. Not because I yell "single" in the lift line or because I know where to park so I can ski all the way to my car. And I'm not glad out of some sense of keeping it a secret or guarding it from outsiders. I'm happy some people don't appreciate Snowbowl because I do. Because if I leave my house at 9 a.m., I'm skiing by 10. Because when the sun shines on East Bowl, the snow gets soft and forgiving. Because all those funky fall lines are resolved at the base, where there's a bar with a fireplace and a pizza oven. You could show me a perfect day with perfect snow on a perfect mountain, and it still wouldn't feel as perfect as a day at Snowbowl, no matter the conditions—especially if that day ends with me unbuckling my boots and ordering a pitcher and a pie at that bar. And most importantly, I'm glad not everyone appreciates Snowbowl because nothing should work for everyone. Things are made better when they appeal to the group, not the crowd.
I don't remember why the Grizzly chair stopped that day, but I was stranded long enough that it must have been something gone wrong. If I hadn't been by myself, the moment probably wouldn't stand out in my memory, but I was alone and ripe for worrying. It was the sort of whiteout where air and earth blend together and your sense of space vanishes. As my anxiety piqued, I heard the steady cadence of skis turning through snow, and somehow, it made me stop worrying. The chair rumbled back to life.
I can't relate to people who exult over fresh powder. The words take me back to Big Sky Ski Resort, with my face dented into the stuff and blood running from my nose after blacking out during the first run of my second season trying to alpine ski. I kept on skiing in a daze, because college-me thought that was a smart idea. The next day, when a doctor asked me to say the president's name, I got it wrong.
I quit downhill skiing after that, though I never had much going for me to begin with. My first season was also cut short when I snapped my collarbone on an icy black diamond. Come to think of it, I think I skied the rest of that afternoon too.
But since then winters have been a real drag. Most of my free time gets spent inside for a long, low-energy hibernation that leaves me out of shape when warm air finally returns. I needed another way to get outside when the weather's cold.
That's what brings me to a little square gym at 8 a.m. on a recent fall morning, explaining my comedy of athletic errors to one of the fittest guys I've ever met. Kiefer Hahn, who co-owns Momentum Athletic Training downtown, agreed to meet after I told him I'm curious about nordic skiing, a sport about which I know basically nothing. Hahn has been racing since he was a kid, and decades later he still looks almost boyish in a zip-up. His gym has a reputation for attracting elite athletes as clients, but he listens patiently as I express my interest in nordic as a more mellow alternative to bombing down a mountain.
Imagine my surprise when Hahn starts to describe the sport's own type of intensity. "That's what makes nordic skiing so hard," he says. "You're using everything."
"Everything," Hahn means, as in every part of the body. Not only does the sport require strong cardiovascular health and leg strength to kick the skis forward, but also upper body strength to push off with nordic skiing's tall poles and enough balance to stay upright with one ski in the air. Until then, the physical demands of cross-country skiing never really occurred to me. It just looks graceful from afar, like the skiing equivalent of a jog. The better comparison might be swimming.
Realizing this makes me glad I'm meeting with Hahn before trying to hit a trail. A friend had coached me in the basics of downhill, but I never felt in control. My legs burned after a few runs, my form suffered and I soon got hurt. Hahn's gym specializes in ski conditioning, offering a rigorous, twice-weekly program that starts in the fall. Each session rotates through 18 stations constructed in the spirit of functional training, an approach to exercise that Hahn says "speaks to the real world of movement" by engaging multiple muscle groups at once. He ticks off the components: balance exercises, heavy squats, treadmill running, agility training and plyometrics. "It's going to kick your ass," he says.
Hahn says all this with a big smile, in a way that feels supportive. He has me step onto a balance board, squat on a balance ball and do leg lifts on a balance pad set atop a wooden box. I stumble through the motions. "You'll get good," he says. "You're young."
When Hahn's next appointment arrives, I'm feeling excited but still have plenty of questions. I want to do more.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Missoula has an active nordic scene. It's anchored by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, a nonprofit run by volunteers who do a ton of work to groom local trails, organize races and help introduce young people/newbies to the sport. They're a diverse crew, as I find out when I stop by their annual meeting at Big Sky Brewing's tasting room. The club's longtime president, Craig Krueger, walks right over and introduces himself to me. We talk about trails, fundraising and Krueger's love for the sport. "I'm still excited to go out every time," he says, "after all these years."
Krueger says the Missoula area offers some great skiing opportunities. The club maintains trails in the Rattlesnake, Lubrecht Experimental Forest and Pattee Canyon. "It can be brown in Missoula and you go up there and it's amazing snow," he says.
Volunteers groom the trails almost daily during the season. The whole operation can cost around $20,000 each year, money that members raise in part by selling booze at Big Sky Brewing summer concerts. It's a great deal for nordic skiers, as the trails are free to use. And joining the club costs just $25 a year.
Joining the club also lends access to free group clinics aimed at kids, beginners and intermediate skiers, explains Kelly Carin, who coordinates them. Classes are typically held in January and February, and Carin encourages me to try one out, explaining how the club helped her feel at home in Missoula after moving here in 2008.
"I wasn't a part of the community before I joined the nordic ski club," she says. "The club has been that grounding force."
Carin reminds me to be patient as I learn the sport, but I'm still anxious to gather more information. My next challenge: gear. I head to Open Road on Orange Street, one of a few stores in town that sells and rents nordic skis, where co-owner John Wood spends 45 minutes walking me through the various equipment choices. Skate skis are different from touring skis, it turns out, but otherwise the equipment is fairly straightforward. Nordic skis are sized according to weight, because "the critical thing is you don't get a ski that's too stiff for you," Wood says. That's because the mechanics of the sport require skis that can both grip the snow and glide over it. Modern equipment solves this paradox by using a scale pattern toward the center of the ski and a cambered design that keeps it above the snow until the skier presses to kick off. A full setup—boots, skis and poles—will run $300-$400, but used gear isn't hard to find, and renting is also an affordable option.
I hold off on dropping any cash, figuring I ought to wait for a clinic to decide what kind of skiing, skate or touring, to try. But in the meantime I think about how Hahn summed up his conditioning philosophy to me: "This is about specific training for the shit you love to do outside." I'm sold on the approach. Now I just need to get out there again during winter.
A good friend from out of town was visiting for a week, one day of which we carved out this classic Mission Mountains tour.
After a long fruitful winter of skiing, it was nice to climb some dry rock.
It was again time to attempt the summit of MacDonald Peak.
Its always worth a day trip to the Missions.
Highly recommend visiting Blodgett Mountain. There's a famous paleontologist related to Joseph Blodgett.
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